I pointed at the kitchen, out at the limousine, and back at her.
She knew she was trapped and joined my hilarity, throwing her head back and giving a delicious yell.
“Jesus Christ, kid, you caught on! But, I thought I was good.”
“You are!” I cried. “You’re terrific. But when you handed me my drink, there was something in your wrist motion. I saw the chauffeur’s hands on the steering wheel. I saw the maid’s fingers on the serving tray. Constance, I mean Miss Rattigan…”
“You could have carried the masquerade on for days,” I said. “It was just the smallest thing about your hands and wrists.”
She ran out of the room, scampered back, frisky as a lap dog, wearing the chauffeur’s cap, took it off, put on the maid’s, cheeks pink, eyes flashing.
“You want to pinch the chauffeur’s bum? Or the maid’s?”
“All three of you have terrific bums!”
She refilled my glass, tossed the two caps aside, and said, “It’s the only fun I have. No jobs in years, so I make my own jobs. Drive around town nights, incognito. Shop evenings, as the maid, ditto. I also run the projection equipment here in the parlor, and wash the limo. I’m not a bad courtesan, either, if you like courtesans. I used to make fifty bucks a night, much moola, in 1923, when a buck was a buck and two bits bought dinner.”
We stopped laughing as we went back inside and sank into the pillows.
“Why all the mystery, why those late nights?” I asked. “Do you ever go out by day?”
“Only to funerals. You see,” Constance sipped her coffee and lay back among the pillows, which resembled a kennel of dogs, “I don’t much like people. I started turning cranky young. I guess I have too many producers’ fingerprints on my skin. Anyway, it’s not bad, playing house alone.”
“What am I doing here?” I asked.
“You’re Fannie’s friend, one. And, two, you look like a good kid. Bright but brainless, I mean innocent. Those big blue eyes full of naivete. Life hasn’t got to you yet? I hope it never does. You look safe to me, and rather nice, and fun. No phys. ed., though, as they say, no phys. ed. Which means I’m not going to tackle you into the bedroom, your virginity is safe.”
“I’m no virgin.”
“No, but you sure as hell look it.”
I blushed furiously.
“You still haven’t said. Why am I here?”
Constance Rattigan put her coffee cup down and leaned forward to stare straight into my face.
“Fannie,” she said, “is frightened. Terrified. Spooked. Are you, I wonder, the one responsible?”
For a little while I had forgotten.
The drive to the beach had blown the darkness out of my head. Being in this house, standing by the pool, watching this woman dive in the sea and return, feeling the night wind on my face and the wine in my mouth had made the last forty-eight hours vanish.
I suddenly realized I hadn’t laughed really hard in a good many weeks. This strange lady’s laughter had aged me back to where I should have been: twenty-seven years old, not ninety the way I had felt getting up this morning.
“Are you the one responsible for scaring Fannie?” she repeated, and stopped.
“My God,” said Constance Rattigan. “You look as if I had just run over your pet dog.” She grabbed my hand and squeezed. “Did I just kick you in the kishkas?”
She let go of me. I didn’t fall off the cliff. So she said, “It’s just, I’m protective as hell about Fannie. I don’t think you know how often I’ve been down to that ratty tenement to visit.”
“I never saw you there.”
“Sure you did, but didn’t know. One night a year ago, Cinco de Mayo, there was a mariachi Mexican Spanish Pachuco conga lineup through the halls and down through the tenement, gassed on wine and enchiladas. I headed the conga line dolled up as Rio Rita; nobody knew who I was, which is the only way to have a good time. You were at the far end of the line, out of step. We never met. After an hour I had a small chat with Fannie and vamoosed. Most of the time I arrive there at two in the morning because Fannie and I go back to Chicago Opera and Art Institute days, when I was painting and in the opera chorus free, and Fannie sang a few leads. We knew Caruso and were both skinny as rails, can you believe that? Fannie? Skinny! But what a voice! God, we were young. Well, you know the rest. I came a long way with mattress marks on my back. When the marks got too numerous, I retired to pump money here in my backyard.”
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